Adrian Diaz, the Seattle Police Department’s new interim chief, inherited a long list of challenges that would be a test of leadership for just about anybody.

Four months of daily protests over institutional racism and police killings of Black people. An ugly political fight over funding cuts that led to the departure of his predecessor. Intense scrutiny and lawsuits over officers’ use of force against protesters.

Diaz’s friends say he’s an advocate for people of color and has a reputation on the force as being a steady hand. But the new interim chief also faces an immensely complicated task: Balancing the needs of the department and well-being of officers with pressure from activists to reshape policing.

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) was on the verge of getting out from under federal oversight just five months ago, but complaints and outrage over police violence against protesters led the city to shelve those plans indefinitely.

The SPD also is facing a proposed budget cut of more than $22 million next year as the city grapples with a $300 million shortfall, while activists are calling for the police department to be restructured, re-imagined or even abolished.

Officers are exhausted, and morale is low. And violent crime appears to be on the rise, with at least 40 homicides committed in the city so far this year, more than any year in recent memory.

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Still, Diaz said taking the job was “an easy decision.”

“Never did I think I’d actually be in this seat,” Diaz said in a recent interview in the chief’s corner office at Seattle Police headquarters. “I’d been next to Chief Best over the last several years. I knew the challenges we were facing, and I felt I had the skill set.”

Changing roles

Diaz, 45, was named interim chief in August after former Police Chief Carmen Best suddenly announced she was retiring in response to the Seattle City Council’s plan to lay off 100 police officers and cut the salaries of command staff.

In his first month on the job, his biggest public move has been to move 100 officers and their supervisors out of specialty units and back to patrol. Those officers started their new assignments Sept. 30.

In mid-August as people in the crowd at an anti-police union protest threw rocks, bottles and explosives at officers and detonated a large pyrotechnic that damaged a police vehicle, a citywide call out drew patrol officers from across Seattle to help, leaving no one to respond to 911 calls, Diaz said.

Luckily, there were no shootings or emergency calls for services during the window of time officers were dispersing protesters from outside the Seattle Police Officers Guild building on Fourth Avenue.

“If we had a shooting or a serious event, there were no officers available. If we’re talking about community safety, that’s unacceptable,” Diaz said.

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The Aug. 16 protest and other serious incidents that resulted in citywide call outs — like the January gang shooting at Third Avenue and Pine Street that killed one woman and injured seven other people — led to Diaz’s decision to move officers to patrol and create a new 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift. Instead of being assigned to precincts, those 100 police officers are being deployed to various areas of the city based on staffing needs.

Seattle police respond to 800,000 calls for service a year, and the new shift was scheduled during the time of day when call volumes are at their highest.

“Patrol is the backbone of this department,” and in his talks with patrol officers, “they were expressing every day how short staffed and exhausted they were,” Diaz said. “In my 23 years (with the SPD) it’s never been done. For many of the patrol officers, it was exciting.”

Youthful experience

Diaz joined the SPD in 1997, was promoted to assistant police chief in 2017 and became deputy police chief in July.

Diaz, who turned 45 in July, is believed to be the youngest police chief in 100 years and is just two years older than Chief William Searing, who was appointed in 1920, according to retired Officer Jim Ritter, president of the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum. Diaz is the 12th chief age 45 or younger to lead the department, he said.

Born in Santa Ana, California, Diaz grew up in Anaheim before his family moved in with his grandmother to Mercer Island before his junior year of high school. He was a longtime wrestling coach at Mercer Island and Chief Sealth high schools.

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He met his wife Kelly, now a research coordinator at Cancer Care Alliance, when she was working as a loss-prevention officer at Nordstrom. Married 16 years, the couple have three children, 13-year-old Alexander and twins Gabriella and Zachary, who are 10.

One of Diaz’s favorite hobbies is photography, and he uses a telephoto lens to photograph his children’s sports matches. He’s a Star Wars nerd, a martial artist and a do-it-yourself handyman who keeps a collection of Day of the Dead skulls on a shelf in his office to remember his ancestors.

“You always have to remember your history to move forward,” Diaz said when asked about them.

Reconnecting with community

Diaz said he believes one of his greatest strengths is building relationships with a variety of community groups and he wants to see the police department reconnect with the public.

“Reimagining policing — what does that even look like? It’s not going to occur in a vacuum and will require getting to the roots of an issue,” Diaz said, adding it’s imperative police are part of that discussion.

Best, the city’s first Black female chief, said she was sidelined by the Seattle City Council and cut out of conversations about reforming the police department. She had hoped Diaz might have better luck reaching a compromise, but that was dashed when the council voted Sept. 22 to override Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of three budget bills meant to start scaling down the size of the department and ramp up community public-safety programs.

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“(Diaz) knew if the council was going to lay off those officers, I wouldn’t be around to do it,” Best, 55, said in a phone interview. “It was just not well thought out.”

Diaz said police officials are assessing each of the recently-passed budget bills and looking ahead to the 2021 budget. And while he said he’s had several conversations with members of the city council, he declined to characterize those discussions.

“It’s a process. There’s a lot of nuance to it,” he said of the department’s review of the budget bills. “There’s a lot of moving pieces you have to actually get through before you even make one layoff.”

Best met Diaz in 2009, when she was lieutenant of the robbery, gang and fugitive unit and Diaz was doing youth outreach and working alongside gang detectives.

“He’s very steady and he’s very thoughtful, which I’ve always appreciated about him,” she said of Diaz. “His work ethic is impeccable. He understands community policing. He’s a smart guy, and he legitimately cares.”

A hit to morale

When Diaz called a news conference late last month and denounced violence and property destruction at recent protests that many say have drowned out legitimate calls for an end to racism and injustice, Mike Sotelo said he heard the chief’s remarks as a call to action. He just wishes he knew how to help.

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“There’s a silent majority out there that is just fed up but too afraid to speak out” for fear of repercussions to their businesses and families, said Sotelo, who chairs the Ethnic Chambers of Commerce Coalition representing 2,000 small business owners and has known Diaz for more than 20 years.

He said Diaz is well respected in the city’s communities of color and is considered a role model in the Latino community.

“Adrian has always been there when we needed him. He knows the community well, he knows a lot of small business owners in Seattle because he spent the time over the years showing up,” Sotelo said. “We’re excited about Adrian. My only question is, is he going to stick around? And is he crazy enough to stick around? It can’t be a great job when your city council does everything to hurt you.”

Diaz said he knows the ongoing protests and uncertainty over the department’s future has taken a toll on officers.

“I’d be wrong to say morale is good. It’s low. We have many officers unsure if they will have a job, so they’re applying with other agencies,” Diaz said. “Another set of officers don’t feel supported by our city. So that impacts morale. Being short-staffed impacts morale.”

Seattle police Officer Matthew Roberson, who until recently was a school resource officer, agreed morale has taken a hit, first as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and then with the protests.

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“Diaz’s push for a long time has been collaboration — if we do it together, we’ll be OK. It just doesn’t feel like things are being done collaboratively or cohesively. It’s hard right now,” said Roberson, 36.

Roberson, who is biracial, grew up in Seattle and the SPD is the only police department he applied to work, in large part because of Diaz. He met Diaz while working for Seattle Parks and Recreation as a teen-development leader at the South Park Community Center. Diaz frequented the center’s late-night program, playing dodge ball and basketball with the neighborhood’s youth.

Diaz also helped secure funds to take kids to the movies and on field trips; organized a junior police academy where crime-scene investigators taught teens how to dust for fingerprints and make concrete casts of footprints; and arranged for members of SPD’s Explorer Program to help out with the community center’s haunted house, fall feast and Christmastime shop-with-a-cop program, said Roberson, who was hired by SPD in 2012.

Roberson’s father, James “Vic” Roberson, a longtime Rainier Beach track coach, also met Diaz after visiting his son at the South Park Community Center. He said Diaz has participated in anti-violence programs in South Seattle and ensured officers attended other community events.

“Adrian was one of those people who wanted to give back to the community and that came through in all my conversations with him. He’s very aware of the community’s needs,” the elder Roberson said. “I would say he is a serious but engaged person: He looks you squarely in the eye, he listens to you intently and he wants to make sure he understands what you’re asking before he responds.”

Diaz, Matthew Roberson said, has reached out to officers to see how they’re feeling and has organized question-and-answer sessions with the department’s command staff.

“A lot of officers appreciate he’s being transparent with us,” Roberson said. “I’m thankful for the hard work he’s taking on and taking in stride.”

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.